Season of Flames

Acknowledging the sacred of bonfires.

Embers trail spiraling molten streamers, lingering in the space between firelight and darkness. Below, flames snap the cadence of autumn: sharp and clean and warm. Coals shimmer and spin their primordial waltz. And just beyond the fire ring, conversation flows to the flame-beat. Someone opens a can with a practiced “hissCRACK,” and voices tumble out into the nothingness. Laughter echoes over the lake and returns—peaceful night whispers that remind us who we are, and where we belong. Here by the fire.

Bonfire is a fifth season here in Montana. A narrow sliver of time between late autumn and winter, in which wildfire danger slackens, the nights stiffen under heavy frost, and fire-worshippers celebrate the passing of summer and eminence of winter.

After trucks are loaded with coolers and tents and more wood than could ever be burned; after the fire is lit; after more people arrive, and more beers are opened and more hot-dogs eaten; after the sun sinks behind the mountains and the temperature drops 20 degrees; after strangers have been introduced and connections made; after the fire grows, and grows, and begins to consume indiscriminately; only then is it a bonfire.

We listen to its snappy conversation. We study its deep light rising on mysterious currents. We feel its hot, steady pressure on our faces. And as the fire speaks and moves in subtle, lazy curves, it seduces our imagination like a great storyteller. Hypnotized, we stare, thinking and talking of nothing and everything.

Camp chairs appear around the fire until there’s an unbroken ring of faces in the glow, safe from the cold darkness just a few feet distant. Talking and laughing; jokes, boasts, and bravado. Faces turn side to side, silhouetted against the backdrop of night—orange-hued profiles turning to portraits, portraits turning to profiles. By the fire, we see each other in a new light.

There’s always a guitar at the bonfire. And the songs are always the same. Simple melodies and well-known choruses envelop the small dome of warmth and light, the guitar and singing voices loud in the mountain quiet. Stepping away into the night, it doesn’t take long to escape fire’s soft glow. But smoky notes carry deep into the darkness and high into the hills. Friends new and old share the flame, share their songs, and share a sense of place. A sense of what it really means to live here.

If it’s late in bonfire season, when snow flurries mingle with the rising woodsmoke, we bring a pair of skis to burn. Old friends, the skis remind us of past powder days, and we toss them to the hungry flames; a cliché ritual sacrifice to long-forgotten pagan gods. But it’s not the hoped-for result of the sacrifice that matters, it’s the ritual itself. We talk of the winter we’ll soon enjoy, preparing the trips and counting the days as the skis melt and twist and disappear, leaving just charred, steely-spined skeletons. The gods are appeased.

Fire is a gift. Spending nights in its light, breathing its smoke, listening to its sound: it’s a return to our beginning. Friends and strangers become one in the intimacy of bonfire season. Plans are hatched and stories told. Lies and exaggerations are celebrated, and laughter is the prevailing conversation. And after the fire dies down, and the guitar’s stashed away, there’s no greater feeling of possibility than waking up at dawn on a frosty autumn morning, wisps of smoke still curling from the fire ring.

For just a few weekends a year, bonfire season brings people together and gives us a special reason to celebrate. It’s a unique privilege—building our fires—appealing to our most primitive instincts. Now’s a fine time to live in Bozeman. The nights will soon grow colder, the days will soon grow shorter, and when the time is right mountain people will meet once again, around the flames.